Change the Tools

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Remember when you begged your mother to spend the extra money on the super-duper-deluxe package of your official high school grad photo?  I do.  It wasn’t enough to have 12 or 15 of the wallet-sized photos, I needed at least 48.  Remember when you looked for the least smudgy ball point pen you could find in order to write personal messages to each and every person to whom you gave one of those photos?  I do.  As I recall, we began to share these forced-smile, ridiculous background, did-I-really-wear-that-haircut photo wonders in junior high. I think the first sheet Mom popped for came with 9 photos, just enough to share with best friends and a few cousins. Each year my pleading for “just one more sheet” grew as the size of my circle of friends grew. I’m a sentimental person, but I bet I’m not the only one from the class of 1983 who still has a pile of these in a box buried in the basement.

My children have never, ever asked me to purchase a sheet of these wallet-sized photos, not once, not even the minis!  They watch as I decide how many to buy and who to send them to at Christmas time, but they’ve never once seemed interested in partaking in this photo-exchange process that I’ve tried to explain to them.  Seems it just doesn’t happen anymore.  But then why would it?  Our children are able to carry with them hundreds of photos of their friends, pictures they’ve taken themselves, pictures that will likely never be printed on photo paper. They have cellphones, iPods and digital cameras. They don’t need to write promises to stay in touch, while trying not to smear blue ink all over the place.  They have Facebook, Flickr and glogster to share photos with remember-when phrases.

The tools of memory-making have changed and the tools of knowledge-making are changing too.

Those of us passionate about shifting our education system to a model such as NB3-21C agree that the competencies we want to empower our children with: critical thinking and creative problem solving, collaboration, communication, personal development and self-awareness, and global citizenship, are not “21st century” ideas.  These learning goals have been taught by teachers, for many years, in many ways that did not require the internet. But while the goals themselves are not new, many of the tools most suited to facilitating mastery of these competencies in a networked knowledge economy are indeed 21st century tools.

The learning environment outlined in the NB3-21C Strategy Document would allow our students to communicate and collaborate across the street and across the globe.  Using netbooks and other technology tools, students will be able to personalize their learning path exploring topics of interest to them and finding others with similar interests. Multimedia publishing, video conferencing, shared authoring, and the development of  peer networks through social networking applications will bring added engagement to the curriculum. One-to-one access at the high school level will enable students across the province to explore subject areas previously unavailable in rural or small schools. This 3 year plan would eventually see all K-5 classrooms with clusters of netbooks as well as interactive whiteboards and FM sound systems, and all students in grades 6-12 would have 1:1 access to netbook computers.

So yes we can “teach” students how to learn, to communicate by reading and writing, to share ideas with their classmates, to be aware of world issues with pencils, paper and textbooks. But imagine what they can learn if we allow them to use the tools they already have locked in their backpacks, or give them access to the tools we use in our homes and workplaces. It is time to empower students in their learning journeys – it is time to put the tools in their hands.

NB3 21C – Why I Embrace the Shift

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As a parent I have hopes and dreams for my children.  I want to see them exploring the world with open eyes. I want them to be literate and numerate enough to pursue any passion they discover, to follow any path that looks inviting and to contribute to whatever society they chose to live in. I want them to be optimistic, but at the same time skeptical. I want them to be creative, communicative, collaborative and compassionate. Our education system as it has operated in the 9 years I’ve been involved has given them some of this – some days, some projects, some experiences, some teachers, sometimes – but not enough.  I want more.

Two years ago I read this post by David Warlick and I began a blog post of my own (unfinished until now) with the title “Maybe Someday”.  The passage that resonated with me was this:

“Conservatism and conformity necessitate control, and the spirit and the affect of Web 2.0 are to democratize control and make it personal.  When teachers are released from district managed portals, and allowed to shape their own personal learning networks, when they are granted a voice and ear to a global conversation about education, when students begin to take a more active role in affecting the “what” and “how” of their own learning, then education changes, and the barriers between the “classroom” and “world” start to disappear.”

I knew a few educators who were working in this way – making global connections, using web tools, helping students develop their own PLNs (personal learning networks), but I wasn’t optimistic that my children would benefit from this personal approach to learning. Time passed, and my blogging efforts gave way to other things.

And then, a spark of hope.  Just over a year ago I was invited to participate in the N.B. Department of Education’s 21st Century Learning Advisory Committee.  The mandate of this Committee is to assist the Department in developing 21C competencies and to review research and consultation findings with the goal of shifting our system to a model of 21C learning.

I have witnessed such great openness to new ideas by the professionals involved in the Committee and the officials at the Department.  The NB3 21C Consultation Document outlines a number of shift elements that will help us move our system from pockets of 21C learning to systemwide innovation and exploration.

I no longer say “maybe someday” because that day is here NOW and it is exciting to be a part of.